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Sustainability and the Circular Economy Are the Issues of “Now”, Not the Future

"Sustainability” is a concept we can utilize and take action as much as we comprehend.

We wanted to reevaluate sustainability, a highly popular concept outlined differently by various circles, with its somewhat lost meaning, and refocus on the biases that result in procrastination, what sustainability is, and what it is not.

If you say, "What does sustainability have to do with us? If there are laws and regulations, we obey them. Other than that, we have many different priorities to focus on", you may not be aware of your impact and even the upcoming enforcements. Or more importantly, the efficiency, innovation mindset, cultural transformation, organizational citizenship, and driving force it will provide.

Yes, I used the word "Utilize" in the subtitle. Does sustainability resonates only a kind of "Responsibility" with you? Or do you associate “utilizing” with “Greenwashing”? Did you know that public companies must publish their sustainability performances? Or that the world's leading asset managers make their investment decisions based on these reports? Did you also know that sustainability returns as risk management, credibility, and even incentives and grants?

Here we start a new blog series that will cover sustainability and social responsibility with various aspects. I hope you will enjoy reading it and enrich us with your comments.

So, What Is Sustainability?

First and foremost, "Sustainability" is a word that carries many different meanings, even in terms of terminology. The level of awareness and significance given to this concept varies from institution to institution or from individual to individual. Including various practices in different business lines, finding common ground is also a highly challenging for the concept of sustainability.

Since it encompasses many different disciplines, we inherently see it from where we stand and understand it as much as we can associate with our perspective. I believe analyzing sustainability by discussing its definition, background, and significance for today's business world is of great importance.

According to the Global Language Monitor's 2020 “BuzzWord” report, the word "Sustainability", which would be at the top without Covid-19, is in 10th place this year.

We can observe this "relativity" dramatically even when we search for the meaning of sustainability in general or thematic dictionaries.

If you look up the word "Sustainability" in several different dictionaries or resources, you will find various approaches to think about. You can find definitions such as the responsible use of resources, utilizing eco-friendly products or renewable energy, the ability to continue over a period of time, or conducting business by using resources responsibly without being harmful to the environment.

The word "Sustainability" is etymologically derived from the Latin "sostenere", "sotto", and "tenere", which express "over-above", and "to hold", meaning sustaining a certain amount or degree.

Highlighting the responsible use of forest resources due to a crisis in the mining industry in Germany, the term 'Sustainability' was first used in a forestry handbook in 1713. It was used to mean “Nachhalttigkeit”, that is, “to hold back to a later time”, “to sustain for later”. Back then, woods were used as an energy source for constructing mines, wells, and tunnels, and the melting of mines and unplanned and distributed mines were causing deforestation. Hans Carl von Carlowitz, an accountant and mining manager who gained experience in France, coined the term sustainability to business management while promoting planned, responsible, and long-term practices in the mining industry.

Thank you, Hans Carl von Carlowitz! Nowadays, we're trying to halt global warming a bit! We have lost many forest landscapes this summer, we are concerned about our seas, oceans, and water resources. We also falter about income distribution and fair labor conditions. I wish we could be as visionary as you on the interrelatedness of various issues.

Well, let's move forward in time and examine what we can do.

With the increased level of industrialization and globalization, crises related to energy resources, mainly woods, coal, and oil, kept resource utilization on the agenda. Yet, since the 1970s, ensuring not only the sustainability for resource utilization, all environmental, social, and governance activities influencing the business world have also been managed by international initiatives, primarily UN (United Nations) and WEF (World Economic Forum).

In our next blog post, we will cover the extent of the practices and international cooperation as well as endeavors that have been conducted by the United Nations continuously since the 1970s. However, the definition of sustainability coined in the Brundtland Commission in 1987 briefly manifests the sustainability concept for businesses and institutions, in the context we will discuss;

"Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In our next blog post, we will also address the significant steps taken by the United Nations since the 1970s and how its development goals were established.

Well, can the sustainability of businesses themselves also be included in this definition? This question also has a wide variety of answers. We will discuss different approaches on this subject in our future blog posts. Do you agree that "A driven executive includes the sustainability of businesses in this definition and tries to find creative ways to manage the company's sustainability and external effects all at the same time"?

We will address the issues regarding the goal, impacts, and responsibilities of businesses in more detail. Unfortunately, although the business world is among the most crucial stakeholder groups that have an impact on and are affected by sustainability issues, it falls behind in the sustainability agenda compared to some other stakeholder groups. Moreover, many organizations still have a prejudice that there is a negative relationship between sustainability and profitability.

Thus, sustainability can mostly be related and limited to issues such as "environment", "climate change crisis", and "global warming". Moreover, when the sole purpose of business existence is regarded as "growth" and "profitability", many organizations still label sustainability as a "romantic", "unnecessary expense", "unnecessary effort", or "non-priority" and ignore it. Furthermore, some social "altruistic" activities detached from the main value chain of a business without long-term value creation can be introduced as a corporate social responsibility in respect of contributing sustainability.

If we expand the definition of sustainability for businesses;

Sustainability is to use all opportunities and potential effectively and creatively to analyze the interaction and effects on the environment, society, and economy as a whole, set measurable goals, create a positive influence by thoroughly improving the business manners while considering the sustainability of the business itself.

What Sustainability Is Not!

In such concepts, addressing "What the Concept Is Not" can also be very helpful. I have made a comparison between "What the Concept Is Not" and "What the Concept Is" for the issues I considered were misunderstood or carried different meanings.

Some may find some concepts familiar in what is covered in this blog post, while some may discover the new aspects of sustainability. In our upcoming blog posts, we will focus on a wide range of issues such as the agenda of the United Nations, climate agreements, upcoming enforcements, sustainability's close relationship with financial markets, social responsibility, social entrepreneurships, impact management and sustainability performance. Your questions, comments, and the topics you would like us to cover in upcoming posts will be of great value to us.

Mehtap Özdemir

Strategy and Product Management - Product Portfolio Manager at Softtech


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